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Holy Island 2005


Had an amazing time on Arran this year. Went up a day early – straight after 3 weeks in the States – slightly jetlagged and very tired. Got off the big ferry at Brodick and caught a bus up to see Zangpo in Glenscorrodale just before he went into the 4 year long retreat.

Zang, a handsome young South African, had been in charge of Holy Island when I’d first visited there 5 years ago and for the last 3 years had been working on demolishing and rebuilding an derelict old farmhouse and turning it into a permanent Men’s Retreat Centre where the Traditional Tibetan long retreats could take place. After an bonkers, Milarepa-like building effort in the last 12 months, he and the hardcore of builder monks had created a beautiful shrine room, kitchen, yoga room and bedrooms for 21 men and 3 caretakers. The day after I saw him, he and the other 20 went into the fenced off Centre and kicked off 4 years of solid practice with 16 days of fasting. They won’t leave the compound until 2009!

It was weird to see them “closed-in” but inspiring in an odd way too. I set off to Holy Island very fired up. I couldn’t ever imagine setting aside that much of my life for Tibetan practice – but the energy those things generate is undeniably strong.

Stepping foot on the springy grass of the island, it was as if the intervening year concertina-ed into a few days. It felt entirely like home.

I mooched around for a few days reading over my notes and letting the incredible peace and energy of the place seep into my bones. I’d been working so hard and intensely in the States, it felt wonderful to relax so profoundly.

By the time my students arrived I was completely soft around the edges.

There were 20 this year which is a great number and they were a dynamic bunch. I think a bigger group allows people to be more committed, strangely. The teaching was remarkably easy. To be honest you could just push people out doors and get them to walk around the Island and they’d probably intuit meditation. But everyone seemed to pick up the practices really strongly – and I managed not to confuse anyone unduly.

Lama Yeshe, the abbot of the island, came for a day and gave a storming talk. Although the content of what he said was nothing new, everyone picked up on his incredibly happy and solid presence. When you watched his face and body-language what he was saying seemed indisputable. Rather outrageously, he claimed that he was happy 100% of the time. Despite the fact we’re all conditioned to think that an absolute impossibility, no one in the room doubted him for a minute. The fact is that our economy would completely dry up if we could get happy without buying the newest car, the freshest washing powder, finding a better girlfriend/boyfriend. Suddenly, this jolly, incredibly high-achieving but penniless, celibate monk offered was scandalously suggesting we can get 100% happy and it doesn’t cost a penny or involve any change.

With little baby steps, we made a start in this direction.

All the meditation practices I taught were about being curious as to what was happening right now in our minds and bodies. W.H. Auden once said curiosity was the one human passion you could indulge without any fear of satiety. And that endless, attentive curiosity as to what our minds are doing is one of the major prongs of meditation. I can’t really speak for my excellent students, but after 2 or 3 days of teaching, I found that my mind became incredibly happy and content on the Island and from that place of happy contentment I was able to observe, with sharp attention, what was happening in my life.

Thoughts affect the emotions: I think about the Australian I’m in love with and I feel happy. Emotions affect the body: that happiness in my heart makes my body tingle. The body in its turn sparks emotions: my grumbling stomach makes me feel uncomfortable. Emotions colour thoughts: that discomfort makes me worry about the boy from Oz. And thoughts combine with emotions to create moods: my worried thoughts gell into a rather anxious mood. Moods sometime solidify into “character traits”: I am an anxious guy. Which can lead to a lot of misery – because we believe our character is permanent and can’t be changed: “Oh God, I’m never going to shake this anxiety, I’m doomed to unhappiness.”

Buddhist thinking, which emphasizes the swirling, infinitely creative but changing nature of a complex system like the “human self”, permits us to be constantly different. On the one hand, there’s the boon of knowing that bad things end. All difficult emotions, black moods, nasty thoughts will definitely pass and can just as easily mutate into positive moods and creative thoughts.

But more importantly it gives us a standpoint above the good and bad. We get used to occupying that smiling, joyful spot where “bad things” and “good things” can both be allowed to happen. Where both happiness and sadness are seen as changing plays of the same light. Fact is there’s always going to be good and bad stuff in life. The secret is how we “hold” things. Working on a gentle, kindly “hold” means that we’re only a step away from a happy existence. 100% of the time. With no washing powder or fast cars necessary.

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